Alphabet Texts

Textual Time Machine: Turning to the past for motivating target language texts

Gary Barlow and Margaret Thatcher accompanied me on my language learning this week. This surprising turn of events was thanks not to celebrity friendships and psychic messages, but rather a lucky stumble across a treasure trove of motivating target language texts.

In truth, I was getting a bit tired of language learning textbooks. Dialogues about holiday scenarios and sanitised snippets of everyday life in the target language country weren’t sparking my fire at all. As such, I was struggling a bit to motivate myself to read.

Then, I happened upon the Icelandic media archive timarit.is.

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

It is not possible to overestimate the benefits of hitting upon just the right texts to motivate your language learning. There are two strands to bear in mind on that search, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting: subject and level.

Subject is important to inspire you to read in the first place. For example, I’m not interested in race car driving at all. So trying to plough through an Icelandic magazine article on Formula One is going to turn me right off. Music or travel, on the other hand, and I’ll be hooked in – especially if the text contains some new information that will be interesting or useful to me personally.

Level is simply the complexity of the language. But level interacts with subject, at least in terms of motivation. If the subject matter fascinates you, even a very difficult text will be one you gladly pore over. And if you are familiar with the subject matter, guessing new vocab from context is a hundred times easier and less frustrating.

Textual Time machine

Enter timarit.is. It is a grand, online collection of digitised newspaper and magazine media by the National and University Library of Iceland. This incredible service makes accessible publications that stretch back decades, fully readable and downloadable in PDF format.

Now, you might well chuckle at my first searches. A whole world of information at my fingertips, and my first selection was anything but highbrow. I grew up during the boyband explosion, so anything that whips up nostalgia around that will pique my interest. So that settles it: what had Iceland to say about Take That in years gone by?

That’s the trick though: don’t shy from your geekiest interests. Be shameless! Dig around and find some material to explore and reminisce over. The whole point is to connect, to personalise, to enmesh your learning into your life – even the cheesy parts. There certainly was no shortage of vintage cheese on offer here, like this cutting on “Gary Goldboy“:

Tímarit (mbl.is)

Gary Barlow, 1996 (timarit.is)

Sometimes the time machine can throw some real zingers of historical nuggets your way, too. I happened across the following (probably apocryphal) story of said popstar moaning about the cost of beer in Berlin in 1996. Celebrity gossip ages quite well, it seems – still served with an eye-roll and a heap of scepticism.

Beer outrage (timarit.is)

Beer outrage, 1996 (timarit.is)

Our history – their eyes

Popsters aside, I am also a bit of a news and current affairs junkie. When I get fed up of the current dirge (which happens a lot lately), I turn to the recent past. Exploring political history, especially what happened in your own lifetime, can be an enlightening exercise.

Trawling the pages of timarit.is reveals an unusual passion: reading about my own country through the eyes of another. I spent a good few hours typing in the names of figures associated with big political events, then seeing the Icelandic take on them through archived, authentic texts.

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! (Timarit.is)

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! 1979 (timarit.is)

The marvellous thing about timarit.is is the sheer depth of chronology. Facsimiles go back to the turn of the 20th Century. I leapt from Thatcher, to Wilson, to Attlee, reading excitedly each Icelandic take on a turning point in my country’s history. Fascinated is an understatement.

Target language culture?

But just a moment: British bands and British politicians? It’s all a bit Anglocentric, so far. However, you can use these as a springboard for tropes closer to your target language. After reading about Thatcher, for example, I searched for the phrase ‘first woman’ in Icelandic. Which other trail blazers would pop up? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt all about Iceland’s – and the world’s – first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

Vigdís voted president! (Timarit.is)

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (timarit.is)

Of course, I have my own target language country fascination already: Eurovision. And there is no shortage of material there! I can’t explain how enthralled my inner nerd becomes when reading about the songs that I obsessed over for years as a superfan. Simply magical.

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (timarit.is)

Eurovision hopefuls for Iceland in 1992, feeling ‘well rehearsed’ (timarit.is). See here for the resulting live performance!

The fact that all this material is downloadable in PDF format is invaluable. I can simply load them onto my iPad (I use GoodReader for PDFs) and study them on the go.

Other languages

Timarit.is is a truly golden resource. As an Icelandic learner, I am beyond lucky to have open access to such a library. But where does this leave learners of other languages?

Sadly, while there are paid archives like the German http://www.genios.de/presse-archiv/, free materials like timarit.is are hard to come by. Perhaps Iceland’s size has made the task of collating and gaining rights for so much material a little easier than elsewhere. Still, even on paid-for sites there is some useful information.

The archive of German publication Spiegel is a good example. You can search editions back to 1946, although you must pay for the full issues. However, the cover thumbnails are intriguing in themselves as pieces of social history. They also contain a fair bit of useful target language in the form of headlines and subtitles.

Spanish news outlet ABC also offers its Hemeroteca (newspaper library) for information time travellers. I found this article on Spain’s first Eurovision victory, by Massiel back in 1968, particularly charming!

With a bit of Google search grafting, there should be something to find out there for all learners.

Archive sites are goldmines for language learners searching something a bit different to read. Do you have a favourite or recommended source of texts? Share them in the comments!

 

Elephants (not the Evernote elephant)

Evernote : Language Hero Sidekick

Think language learning apps, and all the specialist ones tend to come to mind first: Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise and so on. But there are a couple of general tools I use all the time in my language learning. In particular, Evernote has become an utterly indispensable part of that suite.

So why is this unsung hero is a mainstay of my learning routine?

Organisation

If you spend a lot of time writing in the target language, whether creating vocabulary lists or translation homeworks, organisation is key. And with the ability to create multiple notebooks and notebook stacks as standard, Evernote is hard to beat in terms of simplicity and ease.

In my Languages stack, for example, I have a separate notebook for each language I study. And that stack keeps my study notes separate from the myriad other things I use Evernote for. That could be anything from work week planning to travel itineraries. It’s out-of-the-box ready for your sprawling, cross-curricular life.

Evernote Tags

However, Notebooks and notebook stacks are only Evernote’s topmost level of organisation. And it’s true, plenty of note-taking apps work this way.

But what adds granularity to that is the powerful tag functionality. You can add custom tags to any note, adding descriptive – and searchable – terms to help sort and find work later on. The thing is, most people end up with hundreds of documents. This is a given if you study more than one language. Tags add an element of power search that is invaluable.

The whole process of tagging can fine-tune your language study to the nth degree. Amongst other things, I tag my language learning notes with descriptors like grammarhomework, writing practice, vocabulary, lesson notes and so on. As such, notes never disappear into the ether. I can retrieve every note for review with a simple tag search, respecting the time spent creating them.

More than text

Throughout self-taught language courses as well as one-to-one lessons, I’ve amassed a ton of PDF worksheets, sound files and other multimedia educational items. The beauty of Evernote is that these can be attached to notes and filed away with them, always findable. This is so much better than my former, clumsy folder system on the computer.

This extends to webpages too, like news articles or blog posts in the target language. If you’ve worked on a news article as part of a language homework, you can keep the original article along with your notes and vocab lists. You’ll never come across old notes and wonder what text they are referring to again!

Language scrapbooking

Attachments can be more fun than simply worksheets and listening comprehension files, too. I’m a big fan of language scrapbooking – keeping a visual log of your linguistic travels through ephemera like holiday snaps, menus, tickets and other items you pick up on your journeys. For one thing, it makes your connection to the target language culture much more personal – and that can only help with motivation and memory.

However, I’m also very anti-clutter. Keeping hold of countless tram tickets, leaflets and snaps of signposts in foreign languages would just be anathema to me. So, I let Evernote lend a hand! You can scan items straight into a note via the app, or embed multiple pictures into a single document from file. They’re tagged, commented and scrapbooked without any of the mess left hanging around. Excellent for OCD-minded linguists like me.

Shared notes

Language learning is often best as a social activity. Whether it’s a study buddy, fellow classmate or teacher,  sharing what you do with someone else makes your learning much more dynamic.

In Evernote, this is a piece of cake. Any note can be shared with a button click. This makes light work of distributing vocab lists, or sending your homework to your teacher, for example.

What’s more, you control the permissions granted to the shared party. Keep your vocabulary master lists or curriculum plans as ‘Can view’ only in order to retain complete control over them. Your students / buddies will always see your most up-to-date version when shared. On the other hand, give your teacher ‘Can edit’ privileges in order to mark, correct and annotate your writing homeworks. Fantastically simple!

Sharing language learning notes in Evernote

Sharing language learning notes in Evernote

Incidentally, the Evernote text editor is a rich text editor with ample formatting features for your foreign language writing. The desktop program offers just enough tools without the clutter of a fully-fledged Word Processor.

Plan with tick boxes

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference. For me, it’s tick boxes in Evernote. As a list-making obsessive – I plan my language goals  using a 12-week year approach with concrete objectives – I can get my list fix within Evernote itself.

Again, I can’t underestimate the value of keeping all of these items – planning as well as the actual learning material and my notes on it – together in one service.

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

Cross-platform

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Evernote works cross-platform. This allows for a very flexible study workflow. For example, I like to work actively on my notes in the desktop program. I’ll use the mobile app to review my notes on the go, as well as scanning in visual items as attachments, or recording audio notes. Occasionally, it’s handy to flip this, and use the mobile app directly to do my language homework on the move.

Having all your rich, indexed notes in a phone can be incredibly handy for the travelling linguist. It’s the perfect place to store speaking crib sheets to support your speaking when in the target language country, for example. Likewise, in a Skype lesson, having a list of useful phrases available in the palm of your hand can be a lifesaver.

Two devices with a free account

With the free account, you can install Evernote on two devices. That’s been enough for me, for the most part, with the app on my laptop and on my phone. However, you can upgrade to a premium account for unlimited installs (useful if you often switch between a phone and tablet when on the move). A premium account will also give you a lot more space for data-heavy attachments.

Evernote is star software with a multitude of real-world applications. It’s part and parcel of how I learn languages now, doing a superb job of holding masses of material together for me.

Are you also a fan of the green elephant? How has it helped your learning routine? Let us know in the comments below!

Pot pourri

Pot pourri : my week in languages

Pot-pourri is a lovely French term, usually applied to a mixture of herbs and spices, or fragranced wood chips. I’ve appropriately appropriated the French for this week’s blog post, which is a bit of a mixed bag. The past seven days have thrown a few interesting things my language-learning way, so here is my digest of the nuggets most worth sharing.

Chocolate-powered language learning

I’ve been revelling in the joys of globalism this week. Namely, this has involved using my Polish language project as an excuse to stock up on edible goodies in the Polish section of Tesco. Covered in target language (slogans and ingredient lists are particularly useful vocabulary mines), and providing a taste of Polish popular culture, what more could a chocoholic linguist ask for?

It might seem utterly normal to kids these days to find products from overseas markets on the shelves these days. But it wasn’t so long ago that there was nothing like this in your local supermarket. As a lad, I would have found this stuff completely fascinating – a fascination that obviously remains with me, as I crammed chocs into my basket earlier this week.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1025792767635726337

It’s not just about new words. Filling your life with tokens from your target language culture is the perfect way to truly live your language. I recall friends of mine who have brought Japan into every corner of their home. Foreign language grocery products help to create a bit of a special buzz and vibe around your polyglot project.

If you’re not lucky enough to find a whole aisle in the supermarket for your target language, all is not lost. A look around the local discounter store reveals a huge array of products covered in all kinds of languages. A pack of biscuits, for example, had the ingredients listed on the packet in 8 different languages. Granted, they can often be off-the-beaten-track languages rather than mainstream French and Spanish, but these shops are worth a mooch!

For the record: Advocat bars are absolutely delicious.

OverDrive for public library ebooks

The next addition to my linguistic pot pourri has reminded me of the wonderful, often untapped service that our public libraries are. Whilst re-registering for my local library, I’ve also rediscovered the incredibly handy OverDrive app for online library access. Using your library details (card number and passcode / pin), you can set the app up for e-borrowing. Books will depend on the library, but there are quite a few of interest to linguists on there.

I enjoy wider cultural background reading around my target language too, and there are some great titles on there for that – some very recent. I found Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, for example, which is a very accessible way in to a lot of the Icelandic saga material. Bagging the e-book from the library saved me a few pounds (which I’ll probably spend buying more Polish Advocat bars).

Free target language listening material from Teach Yourself

This one surprised me, I must admit. But then, I grew up as a language lover in the 1990s, when Teach Yourself books were X pounds on their own, and almost double that with the accompanying CDs.

The amazing thing is that Teach Yourself now offer nearly all of the listening material for their language books online – for free – at library.teachyouself.com.

Now, this may not be new to anyone else. Apologies if I’m late to the party. You may be eye-rolling as you read this, thinking “get with the picture, Ritchie!”. But now I have found it, I’ll be a regular visitor, at least for the next few weeks.

It’s not a perfect resource, of course, as the book material is not included. But even without the written page, the recordings offer some great, graded listening practice on their own. It might just be that little extra you need to improve your audio comprehension.

As seems the case so often, many of these language learning boosts were lying right under my nose. I hope you found them useful too! And, as a final favour, please share your recommendations of overseas goodies in the comments – maybe you’ll help me find something even tastier than a Polish Advocat!

Blinkist offers condensed summaries of hundreds of books.

Blinkist : one-stop knowledge shop with some language-learning gems

If you use any social media platform, you can’t have missed them lately; those bold and brash ads, featuring ever-so-slightly smug millennials stating “I read four books a day” and similar. Yes, Blinkist has been on a marketing offensive in recent weeks.

I must admit that a bit of academic snobbery held me back for a bit. The smiling professionals in the ads haven’t really read the books, of course, but read and/or listened to synopses, or ‘blinks’ in the terminology of the service.

You see, Blinkist is, in essence, a library of hundreds and hundreds of Cliff Notes on best-selling non-fiction books. Part of me screams “but that’s cheating!” at the cheek of it. But there’s still something enticing about getting a regular, easy-to-digest snapshot of the latest knowledge and trends, so I gave it a go.

Blinkist for linguists

First off, I wasn’t joining with my linguist head on, but rather as a wannabe polymath. I have a strong interest in society topics – I did a social sciences degree in my free time a couple of years back with the excellent Open University – and I was looking forward to trawling through Blinkist’s catalogue of politics, pop psych and sociology first and foremost.

But surprise – there are actually quite a few titles of interest to linguists there. They go beyond general linguistics topics, too, including hands-on titles like Benny Lewis’ “Fluent In Three Months” and Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”, both pretty much essentials in the polyglot community.

If you like learning about language as well as how to learn them, particularly how language develops and changes, Blinkist doesn’t disappoint. For instance, I love Guy Deutscher’s writing on language. I was more than chuffed to note that the platform includes his Through The Language Glass. It’s great to get a second shot at that in summarised, audiobook format.

Blinkist: enhances, rather than replaces reading

So, do I feel like I’ve ‘read’ the books I’ve listened to so far? Well, not really. I think a service like this inevitably skips the detail and nuance that make book-reading such a joy. But I do feel like I have a good overview of the main points. And it’s a nice way to ‘dip in’ to a book you might buy the full version of later on.

Also, there are a few texts on there that I’ve already read. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct was a set text on my language degree syllabus at Oxford back in 1995. The Blinkist summary is a brilliant way to revisit it, lighting up all those pathways and connections that I formed long ago on my first reading of it.

And that’s the strength of the platform. As a way in, or a way back, it’s a wonderful resource to work with non-fiction texts. And, if you like podcasts as much as I do, the similarity of the format will fit right into your routine. It’s also a very likeable format. The titles are read in a fairly neutral American accent, with a mix of male and female narrators. It feels like the team have taken care to make them as pleasant to listen to as they are quick and easy.

While it will never replace reading full books, Blinkist is one more tool in the arsenal of sites and services to keep you well-informed. And as a linguist, there’s lots to get your teeth into. With a free seven-day trial, it’s well worth a nose!

Parroting accents may not be the best way to fluency

Accentuate the positive: accents and language learning

This post comes to you from beautiful Belfast, where I’ve spent a wonderful weekend attending a wedding with good friends. The trip has been a treat in more ways than one. As a linguist, accents have always piqued my interest. And at every turn in this great city, I’ve been hearing some wonderfully rich local talk.

Most of the accents I’ve heard are some variety of the central Belfast lilt itself, while others are from further afield. A couple of times, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a bit of Ulster Scots, as impenetrable as that is to the untrained ear! During one taxi ride, I have to admit to the crime of nodding along while understanding barely half the conversation. I really should know better as a language learner!

Accents upon accents

But what I find most fascinating is how local speech patterns impinge upon the English of those who speak it as a second language. This should be nothing new to me, of course, as I hear chimeric accents all the time in Edinburgh. But, surrounded by them all the time, it’s often easy to miss the hint of Scots that inflects the accents of EFL speakers north of the border. Belfast reminded me of just how much the environment affects our acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve always found that mixing of accents an incredible thing. It’s like a grafting of our life experiences, manifest through our personal travel and migration history, onto speech. Our experiences are etched, in sound, into the way we talk.

In Belfast, for example, you might hear it when the pure, short vowels of a Polish native speaker meld into the open, broad ones of Ulster English. And if you focus closely enough on your own speech in a foreign language, you will detect similar touch points. These are the lines where your speech past meets your language learning present, and both flow into one another.

Foreign versus local

As a language-obsessed kid, I would often dream of learning a language so well that I’d pass for native. Whenever I start a new language, there is still a bit of me – that dogged perfectionist – that would love to reach this goal. But is that goal attainable – or even desirable? Is it so bad that our accents in a foreign language are marked by our linguistic past? Is it such a disaster that sometimes I sound a bit English when I speak German?

Of course, the idea of environment affecting learning throws up the opposite question: when aiming for ‘perfect accents’, should we select neutral varieties as our model for our foreign language speech? Or is there value in allowing the places we spend time in making their mark on our emerging voices? Is Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham English any less valid as a learning goal than ‘standard’ English (whatever that might be)? In some language environments, like Norway, for example, it is near impossible to avoid absorbing some local hue if you are in the country for any length of time.

These two things are in tension all the time – sounding foreign versus sounding local. And spending time in Belfast, and loving the sound of these accent hybrids, reminds me that it’s really not worth worrying about perfection when it comes to your accent in the target language.

Think how stilted the English variant RP sounds. And it is far from neutral; ironically labelled as such, it actually comes with a lot of social, class-ridden baggage. Accents, whether they are local, minority, niche, sociolect, jargon or brand new hybrids that arise in the mouths of non-native learners, give colour.

Accent pride

It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised I even had an accent in my native language. It was the first proper excursion out of my bubble of home, and it was quite a realisation. It’s always a surprise awakening when you realise that you carry these geographical and social markers that you are barely aware of as a youngster.

As a young English assistant in Austria, I could barely escape it – I strove to tone down the Midlands low diphthongs (like ‘oi’ for ‘ai’) when I realised that the kids were starting to pick it up. “Do I really sound like that?” I thought. Even today, this is something I have to be aware of when speaking a foreign language. My natural set of vowels is lower and broader than most of the languages I’ve learnt, and I try to bear that in mind when mapping my own voice across. (Incidentally, it actually helps a lot with Norwegian, which – to my ear – shares a lot of characteristics with my own English accent!) Certainly, the way you speak your native language can create challenges – and opportunities – in your target language.

But pride in your accent can be a positive act of social defiance in many ways. Personally, I felt slightly ashamed of my Midlands twang for many years. During our formative years, the media drills into us a certain prejudice about accents, and the notion of how people ‘should’ sound. I grew up with my local accent routinely ridiculed on television, for example. Similarly, people in Newcastle and Liverpool have had to put up with countless research studies that position their accents as the ‘least popular’. Shamefully, this speech snobbery continues today.

Don’t worry – be happy

So where does this leave us? The crux of it is, again, that worrying too much about accent in a foreign language is futile. One one hand, it is impossible to escape the fusion of elements when you learn another language. On the other hand, this is where the colour is, the aspects that make you you.

Enjoy the variety, and don’t break your head trying to fit some kind of imagined standard. Your accent – native or target language – is a product of all your life experiences. Be proud of it!

Richard West-Soley aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast in July, 2018

Aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast

Coaching and languages: the travelling partner you need?

Language learners are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.

It helps to know that I’m in good company. Multilingual mogul Benny Lewis has sung the praises of coaching repeatedly. In particular, he recommends the free app Coach.me, and is an active member of the platform’s forum and goal-sharing community. I’ve used the app myself, and it is wonderfully simple. Even if you only take advantage of the daily goal reminders, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!

Search for the hero inside yourself

Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.

How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.

Coaching in the eyes of a coach

Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:

Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.

The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.

It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.

Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.

Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.

Plan of action

For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.

I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.

Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.

What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!

Finding a coaching partner

Apps like Coach.me include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.

On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.

Be a guinea pig

However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.

Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £75 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.

Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!

I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.

Surround yourself with symbols of your target language culture, like the cherry blossom of Japan

Language idols: inspiration amongst friends

Sometimes there are people who happen upon a language learning system that just works. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it’s accidental. But those people are great sources of inspiration and ideas for people like us.

As an example, I’ve always been particularly awed and encouraged by the linguistic adventures of two friends – let’s call them Aaron and Bob, to spare their blushes. And in this post, I’ll introduce you to them, and hopefully pass on some of that inspiration. I promise, their story has a lot to motivate other language lovers!

The full whammy

Aaron and Bob embody possibly the noblest motivation for language learning: cultural fascination. They’ve been learning Japanese together for some years now, driven by a mutual love of all things Nippon. And they are shining examples of the wonderful technique of ‘going the full whammy’ with language learning.

The crux is that they don’t simply learn words and phrases. They positively soak their lives in all things Japanese. Art, cuisine, music – when you visit their home, it’s in every corner. Once a month, for example, they receive a subscription box of Japanese sweet treats from Tokyo Treat. (It turns out there are loads of these – Japan Crate and DokiDokiBoxie, for example.) There are always some lying around, and they’re particularly generous with guests!

This love of Nippon had the kind of humble beginning a lot of us are familiar with: musing over dream holidays. As Bob explains:

The very start of it was not long after we first moved in together (about 10 years ago!), we were daydreaming about places we’d like to go on holiday one day, and we both agreed that Japan was a dream destination. But we thought we wouldn’t be able to get much out of it without knowing some of the language. Several years later, we had better jobs, so bigger holidays became a possibility. We were looking for something new to learn together and thought Japanese would be a good option because we were both complete beginners and had friends who had studied it at uni. Aaron found beginners’ classes and we signed up together in early 2011.

The passion and inspiration seems to have snowballed since then, turning into a huge, loveable oni (Japanese monster / ogre) that has somehow captured everyone who surrounds the lads! 👹

Bringing friends along for the ride

Perhaps one of Aaron and Bob’s biggest triumphs is in socialising their learning. Through their generosity of spirit, they have managed to bring all of their friends along for the ride in a celebration of Japan.

Although we may not be learning Japanese with them, our hosts regularly bathe us in their cultural finds, be they unusual sweeties, or home-cooked, Tokyo-inspired treats. They make us laugh with stories of the Japanese monster scene, and teach us how those strange emoticons are really meant to be used. They share favourite pieces of art on social media, and introduce us to their cache of Japanese furries at home. Every step of their language learning journey really is a celebration. 🎉

For them, this creates a constant positive feedback loop around the language learning experience. It’s fun to share for both the lads and us friends; they create a cloud of good vibes around Japanese, which becomes a huge motivator for continuing the journey.

Two heads are better than one

I think what helps the pair, too, is the sense of joint enterprise. Learning together throws up myriad opportunities for fun, as well as solidarity in the more staid, but still essential components, like mutual testing and exam practice. It’s wonderful if you have a partner ready to learn with you like this, but if not, you can still source a language buddy online. For example, sites like iTalki can help you locate fellow-minded learners across the globe if there’s nobody nearby who shares the passion.

Going to the target language country together offers a great opportunity to egg each other on, too. They’ve recently returned from a trip to Japan full of stories. I’m particularly impressed at how they’ve made the most of curious, talkative eldery Japanese citizens in bars – cultural exchange, barroom style! Moreover, when abroad, we often seem different and conspicuous – so why not make a point of it, and chat about those differences with locals? They have that skill down to a tee.

Language is everywhere

There are some caveats, of course. You could say that Aaron and Bob chose their language very well in terms of immersion and availability. Japanese culture seems to enjoy a good deal of cool factor in the West, and is quite accessible for lovers of the alternative. Target-language-ising their lives might have been a bit harder if they’d been learning, say, Albanian.

But nonetheless, with a bit of research, you can fill your playlists with music from anywhere, these days. Spotify and YouTube include representatives from the whole world over. Put some music together, look up some recipes, and hold a celebration night for your target language culture. Or simply insert a few of these things into your usual gatherings. Make culture your inspiration.

Aaron and Bob’s approach is to take one language and culture, and do it in style. This might get tricky if you’re learning multiple languages, but there is a bit of that approach that any learner can adopt, polyglossic or otherwise. In short, we could all benefit from being a bit more like Aaron and Bob!

Programming in binary code

Love languages? Try programming!

Programming languages have a lot in common with human languages. For a start, they all have a very particular vocabulary and syntax. You need to learn the rules to assemble meaning. And both machine and human languages are tools for of turning concepts in our heads into action in the real world.

My love of languages blossomed around the same time as my fascination with computers. I’d tinker around in BASIC on my Commodore VIC-20 as a little kid, getting that early PC to just do things. (I know, that really dates me!) And today, I’m lucky enough to have made a career combining those two strands together as an educational software developer.

Works in progress

That said, it’s a career that never stands still. And, just as with human languages, it’s important to maintain and improve your skills all the time. In the same way that ‘fluency’ is an ill-defined and unhelpful ‘completion’ goal, you never really stop learning in the tech industry. There’s no end-point where you down tools, show your certificate, and say “I know it all now!“.

A fantastic source of development training for me of late has been the peer-tutorial site Udemy. I like the nature of the platform, allowing ordinary folk the chance to share their skills (and earn a bit of money from it, too). I also like the pick-and-choose nature of it, where you pay per course, rather than an all-in subscription. That’s one reason I always felt I wasn’t getting enough usage from the industry training giant, Lynda.com.

In fact the only downside to Udemy is its odd pricing model. Courses are listed under a ‘normal’, inflated price, but are almost always available at a discount. This discount varies, meaning that users end up course-watching until the price is lowered. Then they pounce, usually at a very reasonable rate of around £10 or so. I realise that the commercial psychology behind it is to increase the sense of bargain, but it does seem a little convoluted.

What I’m working on

In any case – there are some gems of courses on there. That goes especially for those who fancy learning some programming for educational applications. For a brief overview, here are some of the fantastic resources I’ve found useful:

Swift 4 and iOS

Apple introduced the Swift language as a successor to the clunky Objective-C language in recent years. It’s much easier to learn, in my opinion, and is more cross-skill compatible with other programming languages. Instructors have embraced the new language on Udemy, and amongst the best courses are the ones from tutorial guru Ray Wenderlich, and London-based developer Angela Yu. I intended to use their courses as refreshers, but have learnt a huge amount from both of them.

Android and Kotlin

Kotlin has a similar story to Swift, as a new language positioned to supersede and older one. That old one is Java, which is arguably a lot more useful and widespread than Objective-C. However, Kotlin is remarkably similar to Swift in syntax and usage. As such, it’s a pretty good choice to add to your collection if you are aiming for both iOS and Android development.

There is an old-school Android developer on Udemy, Tim Buchalka, who really knows his stuff. He’s my go-to for all my Android courses, and his Kotlin course is probably the most accessible and practical out there.

Not all hard work!

It’s not all hard work, of course. I take a couple of courses just out of interest or curiosity. As a programmer, I’ve always felt a little inferior about my design and illustration skills. Not only that, but I’m often a little jealous of how in the zone and mindful digital artists can get when working. To that end, I’ve been following a great course on creating digital art on the iPad with the Procreate app. Because not everything has to be about languages, programming or otherwise!

 

Data laser

Google Sheets magic tricks for language learners

The best language partners not only open your eyes to new words, but to new techniques. It is always the case with excellent iTalki teacher and polyglot friend Marcel Balzer, for example. Never short of fantastic tips, he recently shared a gem of a trick for language learning through the free, online spreadsheet software Google Sheets.

The magic happens thanks to the cross-pollination between Google Products, namely Sheets, and Google Translate. Using a simple formula, you can translate the text contents of one cell into another.

It is very easy to set up. Say you create two columns, A and B, headed German and English. In cell A2, you add a new German word you come across. In cell B2, you have the following formula:

=googletranslate(A2,"de","en")

As soon as the word is entered into the first cell, a handy quick translation will pop up in the second. You may recognise the short codes de and en as international abbreviations, which you can substitute for the languages you are learning. See this link for a full list of them.

You can be as creative with your pairings as you like; I’m currently experimenting with cross-translating vocabulary lists in Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. Great for filling gaps in a weaker language by referencing a stronger one!

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Google Sheets Combo power

Google Sheets has many more tricks up its sleeve for the linguist open to a bit of tech exploration, though. With some imagination, you can create some quite powerful learning applications by combining them.

You can, for example, join together the text in several cells to create a single line of text. For example, if you have “j’ai” in cell A2, and “mangé” in cell B2, in cell C2 you could add:

TEXTJOIN(" ",TRUE,A2,B2)

The TEXTJOIN method pulls together the text contents of cells, and requires a couple of arguments, or pieces of information. The first ” ” is a space in quotes, and tells TEXTJOIN what to place between the words it joins together. Here, I use spaces, but you could use hyphens, commas, or whatever else is appropriate. The TRUE simply tells TEXTJOIN to ignore any blank cells that contain no text – if you want them included, change this to false. Finally, there is a list of all the cells containing the content you want to join (A2, B2). This can be as long as you need.

This is useful for words and phrases on their own. But more usefully, I found, was to use this along with target language words to build URLs. To explain why, it might be useful to outline one of the main methods I use to mine for new vocabulary.

The vocab mining process

When I actively seek out and check new vocabulary, I have a step-by-step routine. This will start in one of two ways, depending on which direction I’m learning it in. Sometimes, for example, I will realise that there is a gap in my target language vocabulary by comparing it with my native and other languages. It’s important to actively interrogate your languages like this, always looking out for gaps. Alternatively, I will just come across new vocab already in the target language when I read or listen to podcasts.

Google Translate

Once I have a word to look up, I use dictionary resources (online and offline), as well as Google Translate, to find a translation. Of course, Google Translate comes with many caveats, being a very blunt instrument for linguists. As a former teacher, I feel the pain of anyone marking a piece of homework that has so obviously gone through the Google mangle. However, as a quick vocabulary look-up tool, it is hard to beat.

Wiktionary

Of course, you have to keep your wits about you when using it. And so comes the final step for me: Wiktionary. Wiktionary is a crowdsourced multilingual dictionary, full of detailed entries for countless words in a whole raft of languages. This includes multiple meanings, contextual examples and even detailed etymologies for many entries – all things that provide real hooks for the learner to understand and assimilate new lexical items.

By now, I should have a good overview of how the word fits into the target language. At this point, I will add it to Anki for learning and testing. The Anki entry may include brief usage notes from Wiktionary and other sources.

That’s a fairly simple procedure, but it does involve a bit of jumping around from site to site. However, if you look at the URLs of Wiktionary pages, they have a very regular form. For example:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/suigh#Irish

You can leverage this kind of regularity when automating tasks. But how?

Chain of command

Enter TEXTJOIN, combined with the power of Google Translate! The chain goes like this: with an English word in cell A2, an automatic translation (say, into Icelandic) pops up in cell B2. Cell C2 then takes the output in cell B2 and builds a link to the relevant Wiktionary page, which I can click to check the entry:

=TEXTJOIN("",TRUE,"https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/",B2,"#Icelandic")

This builds up a full link to a Wiktionary page referencing the word in B2, and the position on the page where the Icelandic entry appears (if it exists). Suddenly, it is a lot quicker and easier to perform my three-step vocab lookup.

Tip of the iceberg

There is a vast array of other methods available in Google Sheets. The above example is a fairly simple chain, but much more complex processes are certainly possible with a bit of creative play. They can be used in myriad ways, too. Google Sheets can be viewed by multiple users at the same time when shared, for example, and Marcel explains that he uses his along with his teacher during online lessons. New words are added to the sheet as they come up, and can be instantly cross-referenced.

Modest Marcel insists that the trick was not his invention, and merely came to him via another helpful polyglot colleague. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful for the inspiration, which has triggered hours of geekish exploration! I pass it on in the hope of helping more fellow linguaphiles in the same way. Harness the power of Google, and happy learning!

Meet you teachers over a coffee or three!

From iTalki to real life: meeting your online teachers

Language lessons via Skype have been an important learning method of mine for some time now. Thanks to sites like iTalki, learners can now connect with teachers across the globe.

But however much experience you have with online classes, there might always remain a certain element of the unreal. It’s understandable; you only see your teachers for around an hour at a time, and under controlled and limited circumstances. It’s sometimes easy to forget that they are actually out there too, in the real world.

Breaking through the invisible wall

Over the last week, I had the chance to remedy that with a couple of my iTalki teachers. It was all lucky circumstance, really. Through regular lesson chat, it transpired that I would cross paths with my Icelandic and Polish tutors. What else to do but arrange coffee and cake (as if any excuse were needed!)?

Now, for a naturally shy language learner, meeting your online tutors can feel like a rather big step. There is something very safe and non-threatening about learning via video chat – the digital platform contains the teacher-pupil relationship quite neatly. On the other hand, out in the wild of real life, we lack those digital boundaries – the nature of greetings, niceties and farewells is quite different.

Performance pressure (with get-out clauses!)

Not only that, but there is also just a little performance pressure! In my case, Polish was a particular source of this, being a fair bit weaker than my Icelandic. Combined with a bit of social anxiety, the stress we put ourselves under to do well can jam up the brain somewhat. I am a perfectionist, after all (but I’m working on that!).

Thankfully, being a fellow polyglot, my Polish tutor chatted quite happily to me in both German and Spanish as well, providing a nice way out of my clumsy polski when needed. And that is one of the perks of meeting teachers who are, in all likelihood, fellow language enthusiasts – it becomes a bit of a meeting of minds, with more than enough common ground to talk about (in the target language or not!).

That said, it’s also important to note that these kinds of meet-up are not lessons in themselves. They should be an informal hello, rather than any test of your ability. In other words, it is all about putting a three-dimensional, human face to the digital presence from my hour once a week or fortnight. That can only help to create greater rapport. And ultimately, that should lead to more lively lessons, with more to talk about.

Chocolate perks

All in all, I had two very positive experiences with two lovely people. Affirming a distance connection face to face also makes the world seem a smaller, friendlier place. If you have the chance to meet your online tutors face to face, go for it! You might even be regaled with chocolate (dziękuję, Jan!)…

Polski torcik from my Polish teacher!

Yum…